Winter 2011

Analogia Naturae: What Does Inanimate Matter Contribute to the Meaning of Life?

D. C. Schindler

I. Schelling and the challenge of mechanism 

The developments in the science of nature that crested in the seventeenth century are commonly referred to as a “revolution” because they involved not just a set of discoveries or a new theory, but a fundamental change in the conception of nature simply, even if the implications of the change have taken centuries fully to unfold.1 One aspect of this transformation is what has been called the “democritization” of the natural world,2 wherein the classical hierarchy of being was flattened out so that all things in the cosmos, no matter how base or how celestial, were seen to be composed of essentially the same “stuff” and were all equal under the law of nature, eventually codified in Newton’s mechanics. The revolution occurred in waves, each laying low in succession one level of the classical triad of being-life-intellect, which Plato introduced in the Sophist. Initially, while Galileo sought to provide a better account of projectile motion, he established principles that presumed to describe the behavior of all being precisely insofar as it partook of motion—that is, insofar as it is physical at all.3 Darwin’s theory was a revolution arguably not because of the claim that the forms of natural things change over time but more fundamentally because his explanation of the manner of the change extended mechanism into biology.4 It thus recast the very meaning of life, suggesting that life does not have a reality in itself but is rather an epiphenomenon of the mechanistic interaction of material parts. If Darwin did not draw out all the implications of his ideas, it did not take long for others to do so. The third wave that has been occurring in our age, namely, the extension of mechanism into the specifically human spheres of existence, for example in “sociobiology” and evolutionary psychology, is rarely called a revolution, perhaps because the first two waves have left so little to overturn. Ultimately mechanistic interpretations of love, faith, reason, and so forth, have become almost a matter of course.


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1. And, to be sure, the “revolution” began several centuries before Galileo. As Anneliese Maier has shown, the emergence of “physicalist thinking” that separated physics, not only from Aristotle, but from philosophy and theology more generally, reached a first crescendo among the Parisian nominalists in the fourteenth century: Die Vorläufer Galileis im 14. Jahrhundert, vol. 1 of Studien zur Naturphilosophie der Spätscholastik (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1949), 1–2.
2. Hans-Dieter Mutschler, Spekulative und empirische Physik (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1990), 22–23.
3. Henri Bortoft explains that Galileo’s theory of motion entailed a radically new way of seeing nature more generally: The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature (New York: Lindisfarne Books, 1996), 160. See the general presentation of Galileo’s concept of nature in E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York: Anchor Books, 1954), 72–104.
4. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn set off a maelstrom of controversy for having pointed out the distinction between the fact of evolution and the theory concerning its causal mechanism, saying that, while the Church has accepted evolution, she has never endorsed a blind mechanistic explanation for it. The ferociousness of the controversy suggests that the essence of the matter is indeed the mechanism, and thus the concept of nature (and the concept of being more generally), that lies behind it. See Schönborn’s original New York Times editorial published 7 July 2005.